TOKYO — Danell Leyva’s parallel bars routine was practically flawless, certainly the best he’d ever done.
Now he had to wait to see if it would be good enough.
There were four gymnasts still to come Sunday, including all-around champion Kohei Uchimura. But the first brushed his backside against one of the rails, and the next two took hops, no matter how slight, on their landings.
“It was pretty crazy, to be honest,” Leyva said. “I actually didn’t think I was going to (win). Seeing everyone’s score going up, it was like another heartbeat I was able to get. Like OK, OK.”
When Uchimura’s legs wobbled on a handstand, Leyva’s heart went into a full-blooded pound. The 19-year-old from Miami had a gold medal, the first by an American man at the world championships since 2003.
“It’s great to finish the way I did,” Leyva said.
Capped a banner world championships for the entire U.S. team, too. All-around champion Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman added bronzes Sunday to give the Americans seven medals, four of them gold. Only China won more, with 12, and the U.S. matched the Chinese gold for gold.
The women claimed their third team gold, and Wieber became the sixth American woman to win the all-around. McKayla Maroney gave the U.S. its third straight vault title. The U.S. men won their first team medal since 2003, a bronze, and Leyva gave them multiple medals for the first time since Paul Hamm won three, also in 2003.
Oh, and the London Olympics are less than a year away.
“That sends a really huge message to other countries and judges that we’re coming in really strong for next year and the Olympics,” said Wieber, who missed a fourth medal on uneven bars by about three-tenths of a point. “It shows that we’re really working hard and we’re going to be back even stronger next year.”
China rounded out its medal haul with Zou Kai and Zhang Chenglong going 1-2 on high bar, and Sui Lu and Yao Jinnan taking the gold and silver on balance beam. Yang Hak-seon of South Korea won the men’s vault title with the hardest vault ever attempted, and Kseniia Afanaseva of Russia claimed the floor title after being a late replacement for teammate Viktoria Komova.
Kohei Uchimura didn’t win any more golds Sunday, but a bronze on high bar gave the Japanese star a complete set. He won golds in the all-around and floor exercise, and a silver in the team competition.
“I don’t think about winning the gold medals or having the gold medals,” said Uchimura, the first man to win three all-around titles. “I’m just concerned about the performance, a good performance. And as a result, it’s been good to win golds.”
Leyva had hoped to give Uchimura a run for his gold medal in the all-around. But the American sat down on his vault landing, then took a nasty-looking fall off the high bar that left him in last place.
Though Leyva’s head quickly cleared, his pride did not.
“To be able to finish in a high point is good — especially after trying to take a chunk out of the bar with my teeth,” Leyva said. “It’s great to be able to come back and show the world we’re not wimps. USA, that’s what it’s about.”
Leyva has all of the difficult tricks — his high bar routine would make Shaun White’s palms sweat — but it’s his polish and precision that have caught the rest of the world’s attention.
His parallel bars routine was filled with intricate combinations, yet they were done with the precision of an artist — which he is — and the rhythm of a musician. He did a spin into a handstand that any dancer would envy, his legs ruler-straight and his toes perfectly pointed. When he flipped into another handstand, he came to a dead stop, looking like a statue as he held the pose.
His dismount was the stuff gymnastics coaches dream off. He landed full-force without so much as a wiggle, his only movement the raising of his arms in triumph.
“Danell has worked so hard on that routine, and in particular on his dismount,” said Kevin Mazeika, men’s team coordinator. “He’s been working on that all year, trying to improve that and working on sticking the landings. It all paid off at just the right time. A beautiful routine with a stuck dismount.”
As the crowd cheered, Leyva let loose with a roar and pumped his fists. His stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, who is excitable just getting off the bus, charged toward the podium like a bull in Pamplona, wrapping Leyva in a bearhug.
It’s only the third parallel bars title for a U.S. man, following Sean Townsend (2001) and Bart Conner (1979).
“I didn’t think anything was going to hit me until the world championships was over and it’s hitting me now,” said Leyva, who won his first U.S. title in August. “It was a great year. It was a phenomenal year.”
And next year, the Americans hope, will be even better.
This has the potential to be the strongest Olympic team the U.S. has ever had. The women won the title despite losing Beijing Olympic captain Alicia Sacramone to a torn Achilles tendon two days before prelims, and all five Americans finished in the top 12 in qualifying. There were two Americans in every event final but vault.
The guys had three of the top five spots in qualifying. They finished team finals only about two points behind China — and that was with the Chinese being clean and the Americans counting a botched vault and some major execution deductions on still rings.
“It’s the result of a lot of hard work,” USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. “These kids have really set their sights higher than they’ve been before. They’re just achieving more and more, so it’s just really exciting to see that they want to keep the United States out front.”
Oh, and get a load of who’s back home. Olympic champion Nastia Liukin just announced her comeback, and Shawn Johnson will anchor the U.S. team at the Pan American Games. Hamm was close to competing at nationals after a shoulder injury, and 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel is working out again after shoulder surgery.
A reduction in team size for London — squads will have five gymnasts, not six — could make the Americans even more formidable.
For the past few years, teams have taken two or three all-arounders and used the rest of their spots on event specialists to ensure big scores in team finals, where three gymnasts compete on each apparatus and all three scores count. With only five gymnasts, however, teams may not have that luxury.
The U.S. has the depth on both sides to adapt. So do the Russian women, and the German, British, Russian and Japanese men.
The Chinese are a big question mark, however, particularly on the men’s side. They had only one all-arounder, Teng Haibin, and he was 18th.
“Look here what we had: Everybody did basically every event. We had five girls in here,” women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. “So it’s not so extremely hard for us.”
Indeed, the toughest task could be settling on the five members of each team.
“When you look at the depth that we have to choose from, if everybody comes back healthy and strong? Oh my gosh,” Penny said. “It’s just going to be an amazing year to watch what happens.”